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White House Budget Office Draws Positive Reviews for FOIA Portal Guidance

Transparency advocates praised the step, but said the effort lacks a lead agency.

In a new step in the government’s effort to improve the cumbersome Freedom of Information Act process, the White House budget office this week issued mandatory instructions to agencies for creating a central portal for submitting and tracking document requests.

As required by the 2016 FOIA Improvement Act, the guidance aims to ease public use of FOIA and “ensure operation of a consolidated, online request portal and establish standards for interoperability between the new National FOIA Portal and agencies' current FOIA platforms.”

As coordinated by OMB and the Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy, agencies are required to submit their plans that conform to one of two approaches, depending on the volume of requests.

“Agencies’ diverse missions, operations, and resources affect the volume, subject, and complexity of the FOIA requests they receive and process, as well as the agency-specific systems developed for supporting agency FOIA operations,” noted the memo from Deputy Budget Director for Management Margaret Weichert and Principal Deputy Associate Attorney General Jesse Panuccio. “This precludes a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution for the portal,” they said.

“Some agencies with very low volumes of requests use simple, non-automated solutions, such as spreadsheets, that fully satisfy their FOIA management needs. By contrast, those agencies with high volumes of requests require automated case management systems.”

Hence agencies may choose whether to “accept a FOIA request directly to their current platforms via a structured Application Programming Interface” or to “accept a FOIA request via a formal, structured email to a designated email inbox,” the memo said. But “unless granted an exception by OMB and [Justice], agencies with automated case management systems will be required to achieve full interoperability with the National FOIA Portal by accepting requests through a structured API.”

Reactions in the community of frequent FOIA requesters were largely upbeat. “This fulfills at least in part what a lot of people in the FOIA community have been talking about for a decade,” Chris Farrell, director of research at Judicial Watch, told Government Executive. “The Trump administration is actually taking a positive step” in providing guidelines, timing, coordination and “coherence,” he added. “It’s not a magic wand that fixes FOIA’s complex problems, but it is consistent with what both sides in the FOIA world have been talking about.”

Austin Evers, executive director of American Oversight, said, “Creating a single point of entry for submitting requests is an important step towards fulfilling the Freedom of Information Act’s purpose to be a tool anyone in the public can use. However, the greatest challenge to transparency is not that federal agencies don’t receive enough FOIA requests, it’s that agencies routinely fail to produce records according to their legal obligations. Until the administration adequately resources its FOIA operations and takes its legal responsibilities seriously, it won’t solve its fundamental transparency problem.”

Sean Moulton, senior policy analyst at the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight, welcomed the move as progress. “However, there are some concerns that the memo remains vague about how the interoperability will be achieved,” he said. “I found it odd that the memo didn't establish more of a structure to oversee the process. There doesn't seem to be lead agency to make final decisions on anything, nor does it establish an interagency working group to tackle the issue and identify problems and solutions.”